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The Brutal Art - Catch Wrestling in Asia

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The Birth of Catch Wrestling

The highly effective fighting style called ‘Catch-as-Catch-Can’ wrestling, Catch Wrestling or simply Catch, arose from several different wrestling styles. Credited for contributing to the creation of Catch are: Irish collar-and-elbow wrestling, Pehlwani wrestling (modern Indian), Iran's Varzesh-e Pahlavani wrestling, and, even the ancient Greeks' wrestling styles. From this fighting style, spawned freestyle wrestling, collegiate wrestling, shoot wrestling and spurred the birth and growth of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) we have today. 

Catch Wrestling

Catch Wrestling or simply Catch, arose from several different wrestling styles. Photo: Zamri Hassan

Catch Wrestling became immensely popular across both sides of the Atlantic during the late 19th and early 20th century – thanks in particular to the travelling carnivals where catch wrestlers would invite their audience to defeat them by a pin or a submission for a chance to win a reward. In America, a very brutal hybrid of Catch known as ‘Rough and Tumble’ fighting where striking, submissions, eye gouging, biting etc were allowed. Within Europe, one of the most prominent hybrids is the 19th century ‘Catch-as-Catch-Can’ wrestling style that emanated from Lancashire. This style got its name from its highly improvised approach where combatants catch any opportunity they can, to pin or submit one another.

Karl Gotch, a prominent professional wrestler in Europe, the United States, and Japan, was also a catch wrestler and student of Billy Riley's Snake Pit (Wigan). Gotch later taught Catch Wrestling to Japanese professional wrestlers in the 1970's like Antoni Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Satoru Sayama (the "Tiger Mask"), Masami Soranaka and Akira Maeda. Japan’s Shoot Wrestling and Shoot fighting, are two direct sub styles that came from ‘Catch-Catch-Can’. As a result of such legacies spawned, Snake Pit (Wigan) is often credited as the home of Lancashire ‘Catch-as-Catch-Can’.

It is a little known historical fact but Mitsuyo Maeda (Conde Koma), the original teacher of the legendary Gracie family who eventually developed the modern fighting system of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, also competed in catch wrestling competitions. The popularity of Catch Wrestling as a sport in both the United States and Europe led to it becoming an Olympic event. Catch Wrestling debuted in the 1904 Olympics (St. Louis), and was included in the 1908 London Games and the 1922 Olympics Games (Antwerp).

Characteristics of Catch Wrestling

While Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is often referred to as ‘the gentle art’ due to the use of a more patient, countering approach to submissions, Catch Wrestling is more about attacking. The big difference is in the mentality of the catch wrestler – said to have a ‘Pattonesque’ mantra of “Attack, attack, attack!” A catch wrestler’s greatest advantage is the offense. He was trained to seize the initiative, maintain it, and never letting his opponent a moment to recover. Jiu-jitsu tournaments reward points to the athlete who achieves and holds positional control, while Catch Wrestling, focuses instead on never stop attacking until they won. The system is based not only on leverage, physics, and control; but instead on domination and pain compliance. For example, catch wrestlers liberally use pressure points against sensitive parts of the human body (known as rippling) to set up techniques and keep opponents on the defensive. Catch wrestlers often possesses a wide appreciation of body mechanics and demonstrates a flexible and innovative mindset when it comes to submissions. 

Catch Wrestling

A catch wrestler’s greatest advantage is the offense. Photo: Zamri Hassan

Josh Barnett, a champion catch wrestler, puts it nicely: "We try to punish you, break you down, wear you out. You want to be as heavy on top as you can absolutely be, you want your opponent to carry as much of your weight as you can because that's exhausting. It wears a person out. It doesn't give them the opportunity to rest in a position and gather their wits. The other thing is using the elbows, the shins, the bones of your body to crank and discomfort, apply pain to a person with the properly used half of an elbow when you're on top in side control, you can maybe use the point of the elbow to dislocate the mandible on somebody's face. Or drive into the orbital bone on their eye socket and crack it. There's a lot of techniques like that. If a guy is too tough and he won't open up, then you find a way to make him open up."

Catch Wrestling and MMA

As Catch Wrestling has been proven to provide a strong base for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighting, increasing numbers of MMA fighters are turning to Catch Wrestling to improve their ‘game’. They are learning to draw from Catch’s wrestling base to give them a strong, diverse, and effective repertoire of takedowns. Once on the ground, these MMA fighters learn to use Catch Wrestling to put tremendous body weight pressure on their opponents, as well as apply brutal techniques such as cross-face, neck crank, leg lock, spinal twist, heel hook, ‘ripping’ etc to inflict pain and make their opponents miserable. It is little wonder that Catch as a fighting style has been described the ‘brutal’ or ‘violent’ art - by both practitioners and critics alike. 

Catch Wrestling

More and more MMA fighters are turning to Catch Wrestling to improve their ‘game’. Photo: Zamri Hassan

Some notable mixed martial artists who also trained in Catch Wrestling include Josh Barnett, Frank Shamrock, Ken Shamrock, Dan Severn, Eric Paulson, Matt Hume and the legendary ‘Gracie hunter’ Kazushi Sakuraba. Catch wrestler, Sakuraba, a former student of the legendary UK/ European Champion Billy Robinson, is the only fighter to have defeated four members of the famed Gracie family: Royler Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Ryan Gracie and Royce Gracie.

Catch Wrestling as a Fighting Style for the Streets

Another important aspect of Catch is that many of these techniques would work just as well in a street fight albeit with some small adaptations. For example, its preference to fight ‘top down’ rather than ‘bottom up’ from the guard position, means that Catch allows for fast mobility to go back on one’s feet in street altercations where there may be more than one attacker. Catch’s use of body weight and gravitational force is also most effective to tire out one’s opponent and ‘demotivate’ him from prolonging the fight. Furthermore, its brutal techniques (like cross face, neck cranking, finger manipulations etc) of attacking pressure points or joints means that one is able to achieve pain compliance a lot faster than in standard BJJ. This makes it an excellent fighting style for practical applications in a street fight where finishing a fight fast can make the difference between life and death.

One of the most foremost street style catch wrestlers is the ‘hooker’ Tony Cecchine. The late, great champion wrestler, Lou Thesz, dubbed Tony Cecchine a ‘hooker’, recognizing Tony’s submission and wrestling as the highest a catch wrestler could achieve. Tony Cecchine’s American Catch Wrestling, while adaptable to sport competition, is first and foremost reality based. His style of Catch Wrestling has been described as ‘raw’, ‘intense’ and ‘brutal’. In 2006, Tony Cecchine was recognized by Black Belt Magazine as one of the 20 Greatest Street Fighters in the World.

The Rise of Catch Wrestling in Asia

Although influence by both Indian and Iranian wrestling in its early stages of evolution, Catch Wrestling is at heart a European fighting style. Over time, Catch Wrestling in turn contributed to Judo and later to the growth of Shooto, Shoot fighting, and Japanese Pro Wrestling. In 1914 for example, when Ad Santel, the World Light Heavyweight Champion in catch wrestling defeated Tokugoro Ito (5th degree black belt in Judo), the fight captured the imagination and interest of Japanese for the European form of fighting. A steady stream of Japanese fighters travelled to Europe to either participate in various tournaments or learn catch wrestling at European schools such as the famed Billy Riley’s Snake Pit (Wigan). The legendary catch wrestler, Karl Gotch, played a pivotal role in popularizing Catch Wrestling in Japan. However, outside Japan, Catch Wrestling never quite caught on in the rest of Asia..….until now. 

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Catch Wrestling is gaining popularity in Asia. Photo: Zamri Hassan

Kapap Academy (Singapore)working in collaboration with the international group, Catch Wrestling Alliance, hosted the very first in South East Asia, a showcase event of Lancashire Catch Wrestling.  It was held on 20 March, 2016 at 1pm (Saturday) at the City Square Mall, Fountain Square. The event saw catch wrestlers from around the world demonstrating the thrills and spills of this exciting and fast paced fighting style.  

Chief organiser Raul Ramirez shared: "We are happy to be bringing authentic Catch Wrestling to the epicenter of martial arts in Asia, the great country of Singapore." 

Sharing the same enthusiasm for this event, Ms Qin Yunquan, CEO of Kapap Academy (Singapore) and National Wrestler remarked: "We are proud to showcase this great and historic wrestling style to Singapore. We hope this will be the first of many epic Catch Wrestling events in Asia." Kapap Academy, is currently the only certified training school in Catch Wrestling in South East Asia for both Lancashire Catch Wrestling, and the more street oriented style of American Catch Wrestling as taught by ‘hooker’ Tony Cecchine.

This article was contributed by Qin Yunquan, National Wrestler and CEO of Kapap Academy (Singapore)